First – thank you to everyone who supported the campaign to save the Penrith cinema. This Thursday, the owners, Graves, telephoned me to say that they have agreed to keep it open for another ten years. It is a most generous gesture by Graves. But it is also a real triumph for all of you: for the many people who joined the marches; for the many people who signed up to our new website; for the primary school children who organised their own campaigns; also for the many, many people who pledged money – our website registered £120,000 of pledges and donations in four weeks. And most of all the extraordinary work that was done by the organising committee – it seems unfair to name names because there were so many people involved but I can’t avoid singling out Ruth, Dawn, Ron and Adrian (read more here). It has all paid off; a wonderful institution which is so important for our town has been saved for another generation. Thank you and well done!
I was delighted to persuade Defra Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, and Minister of State for Agriculture, Jim Paice, to visit Penrith and the Border last month. (The only Minister we still need to get up from DEFRA is Richard Benyon). I was even more delighted that they used the trip to launch a new policy to support upland farming (including a new package to support our priority of rural broadband). They spent a packed day in the constituency – starting off with breakfast at an upland farm at seven and continuing in a round of visits to all our Big Society vanguard projects, to Newton Rigg and concluding with long, focused discussions with groups of upland and dairy farmers in the afternoon. Again to everyone who participated – thank you for your hospitality. Caroline Spelman said the visit was a “triumph” and one of her most enjoyable and useful in either Opposition or Government. Neither of them will ever forget the people they met, and the visit was really important for a constituency that can be too often ignored by London.
Our superfast broadband initiative is gathering momentum. The Penrith conference brought the Obama broadband team together with Cumbrian communities, companies, and officials from London. And it allowed us to become an extra pilot area for rural broadband, and to access millions of pounds of support through Broadband Delivery UK. BT has since independently announced that Penrith would be one of their first places to be upgraded for broadband in their ‘market-towns’ initiative. Other companies have come to the constituency to trial new technology – ranging from wireless signals to sending data directly down electricity lines.
But most impressive of all are the community schemes (click here to read an article about such schemes in the Observer). I am looking forward to a visit in mid-April to the Northern Fells broadband group. A fortnight ago I initiated a debate in Parliament, dedicated to rural broadband, and was delighted that so many other MPs were eager to participate and share experiences. Over a dozen colleagues spoke and many more wanted to, so I plan to hold a longer debate soon. (You can see a video of the debate here). This Friday, Cumbria County Council issued a tender worth £121 million over five years to supply the whole county with a next generation broadband network. Finally, I expect a number of rural community-led broadband schemes to be announced shortly, so watch this space. We will continue to press in every way to bring the best superfast broadband to the most sparsely populated constituency in England.
All in all, this has been a season of community campaigns. Perhaps the greatest – and most effective – campaign (on a larger scale than the cinema) was the one that convinced the government to revisit its proposals on forestry. It brilliantly demonstrated how much the public forests mean to everyone through personal appeals, mass rallies and mailing: I personally received e-mails from nearly five hundred people. And I was delighted to be able to follow up by spending a day in March in the constituency with the Forestry Commission staff visiting the public forest estate and discussing how we could further encourage visitors to the area.
The campaign against windfarms has again been an extraordinary example of community ingenuity, tenacity and dedication. I am working closely with local communities opposed to wind farms in their parishes – from Sleagill and Reagill, to Rosley to Roadhead. (If you are interested in finding out more please click here). One way in which I have been able to help is by building websites for community campaigns: the broadband and Penrith cinema websites should now be followed by launching a one-stop wind farm website, bringing together material from all the Cumbrian campaigns.
These are just a few among hundreds of extraordinary community initiatives. Some of the others I have been privileged to be able to support in a small way through the Big Society vanguard. These include Crosby Ravensworth, where the Butcher’s Arms is close to being bought by the community, and where (when the hibernating bat wakes from a cold winter) building work will begin on the community-led affordable housing project delivering 22 new homes to the community; Appleby, where the Bongate hydro project is pioneering ground-breaking marine technology that is safe for fish and has zero impact on the landscape; Kirkby Stephen and Appleby, where community work is progressing on looking at ways to run their Tourist Information Centres; and Upper Eden which has taken the lead in both broadband and community planning.
But the ‘inkspot’ spreads far further than these projects in Eden. We have the second highest participation in voluntary organisations of any constituency in the country. Voluntary organisations continue to do incredible work in very difficult financial circumstances. Community groups from the Northern Fells, through Sustainable Alston to Brampton continue to drive through creative, compassionate, courageous schemes on their own. School-children in Cumbria are wonderfully engaged in projects helping communities from Carlisle to Africa. (I tried to communicate some of the energy of Cumbrian communities in a parliamentary debate – click here).
Finally, as you know, the world has been dealing with a very difficult situation in Libya. I have been arguing – on the basis of what I saw in Afghanistan – that if you dip your toes into an intervention it is very easy to sink up to your neck. A no-fly zone was right but we should not be dragged in any deeper. (Again, if you are interested here are some links to a couple of parliamentary speeches (see here and here), to an article, here, and to a Question Time debate with Niall Ferguson, Ken Livingstone, Danny Alexander and Bianca Jagger – click here to watch.
Perhaps the longest-standing and most difficult of our campaigns is that for our agricultural college, Newton Rigg. This has been going on for more than a year. Hundreds of you have emailed and written to me, and signed the petition to ‘Keep Newton Rigg Cumbrian’. I continue to push Ministers weekly on the issue, and am now focused on designing legal protections to preserve the land and farms of the college and prevent asset-stripping by any future occupant of the site. Click here to read my open Letter to the Herald. Please, if you haven’t already done so, sign the petition or write to me (details here) – the more pressure the better. We must fight to preserve something unique to Cumbria and so important for Britain.
Very Happy Easter.
With best regards,